The attendees at the Wednesday evening opening reception for “Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection” at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum were distinguished by a preponderance of formal suits and pocket squares, silver hair and lorgnettes (alright, I made up that least detail, but it certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place). Clustered in the oak-paneled lobby, the well-heeled and well-behaved group made for a welcome change of pace from Chelsea’s beer-fueled mob scene. Museum director Paul Warwick Thompson and curatorial director Barbara Bloemink were both busy ushering trustees and other bigwigs around the boutique-ish Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery (once the music room of the historic Andrew Carnegie mansion), in which Shonibare’s picks were on display, while other staffers hovered around, periodically directing visitors towards the labyrinthine tented passageway that led outside to the temporary washrooms, a reminder of the museum’s current woes (rumor has it that plans for a seventy-five-million dollar underground expansion, announced only in February, were recently cancelled, and their design triennial has been pushed back so far that now it would properly be called a quadrennial).
In a pleasant divergence from commercial convention, the post-reception dinner was also held at the museum, in a large, elegant space that might have been designed with just such a purpose in mind. Among those who strolled through “Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance,” another (comparatively sparse but oddly fascinating) current exhibition, to reach the event were Shonibare’s charming partner Maxa Zoller, his New York gallerist James Cohan and London gallerist Stephen Friedman, Cooper-Hewitt curator Elizabeth Chase and irrepressible Art News executive editor Robin Cembalest. After thanking those who needed thanking, Thompson presented gifts to Shonibare, Zoller, and Chase. Neatly wrapped in silver paper, they set the party babbling with curiosity. (Shonibare and Zoller each received a plate designed by Constantine Boym exclusively for the museum; Chase kept her present demurely under wraps).
Shonibare was born in London to Nigerian parents, grew up in Nigeria, returned to London at the age of seventeen, and has been based there ever since. Not only a finalist for the Turner Prize in 2004, he is also an MBEa Member of the British Empire. There’s a certain irony to an artist known for exploring themes of colonialism and migration being valorized by the very system he critique. Gleefully characterizing himself as a “cultural hybrid,” Shonibare had taken obvious pleasure in interacting, Fred Wilson-like, with an institution whose collection includes numerous items reflecting an era with very different attitudes towards exploration and the “exotic.”
Though gentle in comparison to Wilson’s overtly political rearrangements, Shonibare’s exhibition, a meditation on travel that includes objects from Europe, Asia, and America and that spans the past five centuries, incorporates some captivating items, including an extraordinary array of bird and insect cages, and (one of the artist’s personal favorites) a “match safe” depicting a man astride an ostrich. Teetering above it all on stilts are Shonibare’s own sculptures of the museum’s eccentric founding sisters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, clad in late Victorian-style outfits crafted from the artist’s signature contemporary pseudo-African textiles. With several more sculptures and a new series of paintings on concurrent display in Chelsea, Shonibare himself seems to be enjoying a similarly elevated though comparably idiosyncratic perspective.